Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Response to Alex Ross "On the Road"

I live in what most New Yorkers might refer to as "beyond the provinces," but my husband and I still get the magazine. It is nice to know that Alex Ross took the time to fly to Indianapolis, rent a car, and drive to a couple of cities accessible by way of the interstate highway system. I'm glad that he enjoyed the concerts he heard played by three of the many fine professional orchestras scattered through the Midwest and upper south, and I'm glad that he shared his experience with the readers of the New Yorker.

He didn't quite get all his information right though. He mentioned that
"conservatories are producing wave after wave of almost excessively skilled players, and, like Ph.D.s in the humanities, hundreds of them fan out across the continent each year in search of jobs. They may stay with a regional orchestra for only a season or two before moving on to a higher salary, but they raise the level of playing as they go."
Mr. Ross needs to change that number to thousands, and he needs to make his geographical range global, because people routinely travel from the far "corners" of the world for the possibility of a job in a full time American orchestra. Also, if someone is lucky enough (and there is a certain element of luck involved in the audition process) to get a job in Indianapolis, Nashville, or Birmingham, s/he is more likely to stay than move on. Vacancies for any instrument in a full-time professional orchestra are few and far between, and the number of highly-qualified applicants is exponentially out of proportion to the number of jobs available "out in the provinces" in any given year.

Distance from the established centers of American music making does not have anything to do with the quality of a person's playing or an orchestra's playing. There are great musicians everywhere, and the people who are able to win competitive auditions should be celebrated the way Olympic athletes are celebrated for their accomplishment. It is no surprise to me that the bass solo in Mahler's First Symphony, as played by the Indianapolis Symphony's principal bassist, was great. The principal string players in Indianapolis are as good (I could even use the world great) as principal string players in any "big city" orchestra who make a lot more money.

There are a few (and that is a literal few: between three and five) people who "move up" in the orchestra world in a given year, but many of the best jobs (many is not a good word: I'm talking about a handful of jobs) in the East Coast orchestras have gone to excellent instrumentalists in their early 20s who have come straight from Curtis, and will stay in those jobs for the rest of their professional lives.

People with Ph.D.s in even the most specialized fields of the humanities have a far better chance of getting work in their fields that would pay the rent and raise a family than musicians graduating from conservatories.

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Eric Edberg said...

Great points, Elaine. You inspired me to add some of my own on my blog.

Michael Leddy said...

Only the most provincial p.o.v. (the sort represented in Saul Steinberg'sView of the World from 9th Avenue) would be surprised to find great performances away from the great cities.